NEW YORK -- (with apologies to Ian Fleming) -- Timothy Dalton woke at 5 a.m. in his suite at the Carlyle Hotel. Still on London time, he thought. He dialed 2 for room service and ordered up coffee, then flipped through the New York papers and a British tabloid he was vaguely embarrassed to have in his possession.

He wasn't a fan of the tabloids. Ever since he'd been named the new James Bond they'd behaved in predictably unspeakable fashion, posting reporters outside his house in west London, inventing trysts with scantily clad girls and shamelessly rehashing details of a much-publicized relationship with Vanessa Redgrave.

As the latest actor to inherit the role of Agent 007, Dalton had been on the road for nearly a month promoting the new Bond epic: "The Living Daylights." First Europe, now America, then on to Melbourne, Sydney and Japan. It was a difficult assignment. He knew the value of a publicity tour, but he found its trappings -- the flacks and sycophancy -- distasteful. He was a very private man.

He had a wash and pulled on a pair of navy chinos and a button-down denim shirt, and after that his Hamilton wristwatch with the slightly stained olive-green band. The stains (water? sweat?) would have looked sloppy on another man, but on Dalton they merely turned women's thoughts to steamy assignations in faraway places. It had always been that way, even back at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and playing Bond wasn't likely to help.

He lifted the cup -- French bone china -- from its saucer. Bond had been a coffee man, too, but that was not a coincidence that Dalton would have been amused by. Mildly intrigued as he was with the prospect of becoming a household heartthrob, the idea of being confused with Bond irritated him. It was almost as bad as the prospect of another day of media interrogation. But he would do as he was told. He was a professional.

Outside, the Manhattan sky was growing light; even now the television crews and print reporters were preparing their respective assaults. Dalton put the newspapers aside. Resolve darkened his brow.

Maybe it's the Shakespeare, or maybe it's just his nature, but Timothy Dalton on the subject of James Bond sounds a bit like Olivier dissecting the Dane.

"A man of enormous contradictions and opposites," he says. "He can be described as a machine, but when you involve yourself in the story, you realize here is a man full of feeling!"

Hands clasped before him he is earnest as a vicar, his pale forehead framed by monastic wisps of dark, straight hair. He wears no jewelry, and in his cotton clothes, without benefit of black tie or blow-dryer, he looks less like a man with a license to kill than a handsome but harassed high school teacher.

Dalton is the fourth man to fill Bond's steel-toed shoes. He follows Sean Connery, who came first and still owns the patent; the forgettable George Lazenby, relieved of duty after one film; and finally Roger Moore, whose self-deprecating wit and immaculate turnout were the perfect foil for the technological excesses of the later Bond films.

Faced with the daunting task of reinterpreting a pop icon, Dalton went back to Fleming's first novel, "Casino Royale." What he found was neither the amoral machine that some saw in the books nor the broad cartoon figure of the later films, but a tormented man of principle.

"You could say in a sense we've gone back to the foundations," he says. "At the end of 'Casino Royale,' I mean, Bond's had it. The woman he loves has committed suicide rather than tell, rather than betray him because she's working for the opposition. And that he cannot deal with.

"He doesn't like the world he lives in, he doesn't believe in it. He can't really deal with it, because it's not the world that his personality works in.

"He is in a sense an idealist ... working in a world where rights one day become wrong. I mean there's a thoroughly awful, pragmatic cynicism at work in that world."

Dalton sits on the edge of an enormous sofa and puffs the first of five Benson & Hedges Multifilters he will consume in the next 45 minutes. His uneven, unmanicured nails seem less an accident than an act of defiance. The dangerous charm that is his greatest weapon onscreen is under wraps this morning. Instead, his green eyes are guarded, and they narrow in an alarming way when he is annoyed. Only the voice -- trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and perfected in several seasons at the Royal Shakespeare Company -- cannot be hidden. It is rich, deep and dramatic, reminiscent of Richard Burton. A request for a cigarette sounds like the start of a soliloquy.

At 41, Dalton is perhaps the most accomplished of the actors to play Bond. He has done seasons of Shakespeare, played Mr. Rochester in a BBC production of "Jane Eyre," and Heathcliff in a critically acclaimed remake of "Wuthering Heights." Film buffs may remember him at 21, playing the devious young King Philip of France in "The Lion in Winter," alongside Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole.

The re'sume' has been leavened with some notable trash and flash: He's played opposite Joan Collins in the mini-series "Sins," and Brooke Shields in "Brenda Starr." He was Flash Gordon in Dino De Laurentiis' film of the same name, and husband to the 85-year-old Mae West in "Sextette" (they sang a duet -- "Love Will Keep Us Together").

Asked which roles were his favorites, Dalton responds as if he has been asked to betray state secrets.

"Well, they've all been 'favorite,' when you're doing them they're all your favorite roles. It's too much time out of your life, too much care, too much energy, you know, you love them all."

But no particular favorite?

"Well, your favorite one is the one you're working on at the moment, I suppose. But you can't really look back -- I suppose you could look back at successes, but then you couldn't really say favorite. Because they all are part of your life, they all are what I am today. I'm made up of all the work I've done." Pause. Had he given too much away? "As well, of course, as all one's other experiences ... I don't think it's fair to start picking one out."

But which was the most fun?

"Well, work's work," he says doggedly. "Fun is what you give the audience."

Dalton is fiercely tight-lipped about his offscreen life. Until recently, according to one report, some of his closest friends apparently believed he was an only child. (He isn't.) He was born in Wales, moved to England at a young age. His father is an advertising executive, he has five siblings, and he was acting by the time he was 16. He is unmarried. The on-again, off-again relationship with Redgrave apparently is over; they are said to be close friends.

When pressed for more he glowers. "Privacy doesn't really need defending, does it? Once you give your private life away you don't have a private life ... What counts is that the public knows they're going to get good entertainment for their money."

If Dalton has given a lot of thought to Bond, perhaps it is because he's had so much time: The producers of the 007 series first approached him to replace Connery more than 15 years ago. (It was mutually agreed, everyone says now, that he was too young and too unknown for the role.) A few years later, when it looked as if Roger Moore and Bond might part ways over a contract dispute, Dalton was approached again, but Moore eventually returned to the role.

When Moore retired as Bond two years ago, Dalton again was considered, but the producers initially settled on Pierce Brosnan, the Irish-born star of television's "Remington Steele." Brosnan, however, was unable to wriggle out of his TV contract, and the role fell, finally, to Dalton. He was happy to sign on, especially with the understanding that the 16th Bond film would mark a return to what he considered an earlier, more human Bond.

Though Dalton's Bond makes his film entrance in the time-honored white-knuckled way -- clinging to the roof of a truck as it hurtles out of control down a winding mountain road -- the actor has taken obvious pains to make his 007 less one-dimensional. His reading of Bond's character is somewhat more generous than the early film posters, which pictured a cheerful, pistol-packing Connery beside breathless text that today reads like an arrest warrant for Abu Nidal: "Licensed to Kill -- when he wants, where he wants and whom he wants!"

"The only way I could play it would be to try and be faithful to the spirit of Fleming," he says. "I mean if you look back to the early films, you saw films that were intended to be exciting, tense adventure thrillers. And Connery played them, often with great humanity ... a man who was dirty and scruffy and threw up now and again with nerves. And then it developed into technological extravaganzas that could only be played lightheartedly."

In "The Living Daylights," the new Bond's tie is often askew, and in some scenes he looks as if he could use a shower. "If you're going to try and do this one seriously, you can't go around in astrakhan collars when you're following someone," Dalton says.

But when it is suggested that even Bond's womanizing has been scaled back to mortal dimensions, Dalton leaps to 007's defense. No scaling back was necessary, he says: Bond never was promiscuous, just misunderstood.

"Sometimes there was another woman," he says as crisply as if he is about to diagram the point on a blackboard, "but go back to the early films. 'Doctor No,' there was that girl working for the other side, but I mean, his main involvement was with Ursula Andress. In 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service,' it was Diana Rigg, and they ended up getting married.

"And then Fleming's theme, always, is romantic."

Romantic?

"Absolutely!" he insists, smiling now. "It really is a damsel in distress. He always falls for the girl!" He pauses, sensing skepticism. "Well, they tend to rather like him, too, but I know so, I know so! With his line of work, he can't fall in love with a woman, so he's a sucker for it!

"You have a man who knows he can't get involved with a woman. Not if he's to do his job in this difficult, dangerous life. When his death is imminent, then he gets involved, but having pushed him to that extreme, making the character recognize that he can't have the emotional baggage of involvement with a woman, of course it creates the exact opposite. He longs for it! And of course, like some of those ancient stories, within two pages he's found a damsel in distress, and he's head over heels."

Dalton says his Bond is a late-'80s man. "What stands out in this film is the way that relationship develops. And it develops in a very modern and understandable way. It's not smarmy or smooth or 'romantic' in inverted commas; it's very real. He gets to know the girl."

Early in the film, Bond disobeys an order to kill a beautiful blond cellist who has been recruited as an assassin. "You do sense here that he's not a man at ease with it," Dalton says, happily. "Sure, didn't you? I mean, he disobeys orders twice, he's obviously not happy about the situation when he's asked to assassinate, or murder, and he disobeys orders in order to find out what the real truth is. And to overcome the evil that is revealed."

Dalton swigged the last of his chilled Evian water, checked the time and let his glance stray to the buxom associate producer sitting across the room. He permitted himself a tight smile, then extended a hand of farewell. His eyes had the hopeful gleam of a man ushering in-laws out the door.

His take for "The Living Daylights" would be $750,000, a sum that would no doubt increase the next time. But would there be a next time?

Only Dalton knew, and he was giving nothing away. "I think if it's a financial success, they'll undoubtedly make another one ... It's terrific if people go out of the cinema feeling happy, and enjoy this one aspect of our world -- you know there're other things too, there's tragedy, there's adventure and comedy -- but this is ...

"Yes, I'd do another," he said, finally. "I'd be very happy to."

Dalton stood a little straighter, and squinted. It was the same squint he'd used in "The Living Daylights," while saving the world with the aid of a daring band of Afghan rebels.

There was an argument, not entirely specious, that the film might do for the Afghan resistance what Oliver North had done for the contras. Dismay registered briefly on Dalton's face, then vanished. It was the actor's control. "Mmmmm," he said mildly. "Do you think?"

How could one not?

"I do take that point," he said, " ... but I mean also, nobody's daft, you can't really believe ... "

He brooded, nibbling on the end of his thumb, and then brightened. "If you want to talk on a serious level, it's very interesting to see James Bond working with the KGB and the CIA to get the two bad guys.

"Which I think," he said, almost piously, "is quite a responsible sort of thing to be doing."